Posted on Nov 19, 2015
By Ellie Laks, Founder of The Gentle Barn
It's Never Too Late for a Second Chance
Everyone will reach a moment in their lives when they feel like they are completely alone and they want to give up on everything. But just because you feel this way doesn’t mean it’s true. All you need is someone to help you in the right direction and get you back on your feet. Sometimes, starting new is as simple as asking for help. And other times, help finds you. There is a place. A place that offers help when you ask and also offers help when you don’t. It’s called The Gentle Barn. The Gentle Barn offers everyone a new start with its calming atmosphere, unique amenities, and helpful volunteers.
In 1999, a visionary named Ellie Laks founded the Gentle Barn. In 2002, her soul mate Jay Weiner joined her. Together they run a phenomenal sanctuary that not only helps animals who have been abused, abandoned, and neglected, but people in the same situations as well. Ever since Ellie was seven years old, she had a special connection to animals. As she put it, "animals were always very healing and nurturing [to her] as [she] faced the challenges of growing up, finding [herelf], fitting in, and feeling understood." As she grew older, Ellie’s connection to animals only grew stronger.
When Ellie was in college, she majored in special education and psychology. Through her education and her love for animals, children and all life, the Gentle Barn was born. Ellie wanted to help animals as much as they had helped her through the years. She founded the Gentle Barn as a way to rescue animals—some physically and some emotionally—but soon it grew into a place that also helped, in its own way, rescue people as well. As the years passed, the Gentle Barn flourished into a place that continues to help the many who visit more than Ellie could have ever imagined.
There are over 170 farm animals on the California properties, and about 13 farm animals on the Tennessee property, that have made the Gentle Barn their home after being rescued from severe abuse, neglect, abandonment or worse. The animals brought in range from the typical farm animals (horses, sheep, cows, chickens, pigs, dogs, etc.) all the way to less typical animals (such as their emu and llama).
When the animals are brought in, they usually need some sort of care to bring them back to the happy, healthy animal they should be. Each animal will go through a rehabilitation process that is unique for whatever situation they came from. Sometimes that means physically working with a volunteer everyday for a period of time, getting medication for any illnesses they may have picked up before coming to the Gentle Barn, or sometimes it simply means that they just need someone to spend quality time with them until they feel comfortable in their new forever home.
Every Sunday, from 10am until 2pm, the Gentle Barn is open for the general public to come visit and learn the stories of the animals. From these stories, visitors learn from, respect, appreciate, and connect with the animals. The Gentle Barn is usually closed the rest of the week to give the animals a chance to relax from their very busy, visitor packed, Sundays. However, sometimes during the week, the Gentle Barn will be open for special group tours. The groups that come in are as widely diverse as the animals themselves. The Gentle Barn works with children from the inner-city, group homes, mental health care facilities, foster homes, and schools. The goal is to teach them that even though we may be different on the outside, on the inside we are all the same. The animals around the barnyard also help show the children who come in that you could have gone through the worst things in your life, but no matter what there is always someone who will be there to care about you and help you back onto your feet, and that it's never too late for a second chance.
The main Gentle Barn has two locations, both located on Sierra Highway in Santa Clarita, California (there is also a third location in Knoxville, Tennessee). The Gentle Barn that is open to the public is a six-acre property with two levels. The first level, where visitors enter, includes large pastures for the cows and horses, a small parking lot for the visitors, and an organic vegetable garden. The second level, upstairs, has a barnyard for the smaller animals, a small amphitheater where Ellie will personally talk with visitors about the Gentle Barn and the animals, as well as Ellie and Jay's personal house where they live. All around the barnyard there are trees planted to provide plenty of shade for both the animals and the visitors.
On the main level there is a small store where visitors can buy trinkets, jewelry, t-shirts, sweatshirts, mugs, and even a book about how the Gentle Barn began (written by Ellie herself). There is also a small snack shack where people can purchase vegan food and drinks to munch on during their visit. There are several picnic tables, as well, for visitors to rest on and eat.
While visiting, people can go around to the three main areas of the barn—cows, horses, and the upper barnyard—to learn about the animals that have taken refuge here. When visitors are with the cows, they are welcomed into the pasture to hug and brush the cows. In the horse area, people are invited to purchase a small bag of carrots to feed the horses and donkeys. Sometimes visitors are even able to go into a stall—accompanied by a volunteer—to get a one-on-one experience with a horse as well. In the upper barnyard there is a plethora of smaller barnyard animals. The upper barnyard is home to the chickens, goats, pigs, sheep, turkeys, emu, llama, and peacock. Visitors are able to walk around freely with the smaller animals as volunteers tell them about the different stories.
There are volunteers in every section of the Gentle Barn to help visitors navigate throughout the barnyard as well as inform them about what each of the animals have individually gone through. On some days there will be a volunteer helping tell the stories of maybe three to four animals. On other days, there could be a volunteer for each animal. The volunteers that work at the barn are all there for various reasons, just like the animals. Some volunteers are there for community service. Others are there simply to help the animals and educate the people that come in to have a better understanding of the animals.
Each section of the barnyard gets a set crew of people who will work with those animals each week. For any volunteers that stay at the Barn for more than a year, they become a senior volunteer. These volunteers usually make up the set crews. Set crews are not only good for the animals, but also for the visitors. It allows them to have familiar faces every week; therefore adding to the calming and inviting environment.
To volunteer on Sundays at the Gentle Barn, a person must be at least 14 years old. For those who want to volunteer during the week, they must be at least 18 years old. The volunteers that come during the week don't have the general public to work with so they are able to get a more one-on-one experience bonding with the animals. During the week however, they do have different responsibilities than the weekend volunteers.
The weekday volunteers help groom the animals they are working with as well as other tasks that are necessary for the different areas. The weekday volunteers that work with the horses also take them for walks on halters—since none of the horses are ridden after coming to the barn—through a trail in the hills behind the Gentle Barn. However, as far as the other sections' additional responsibilities go, I'm unsure what they entail since I work specifically with the horses.
I personally started volunteering at the Gentle Barn almost five years ago. On my first visit, I was completely touched by the whole organization and what they do for the animals. Not too long after, I was there every Sunday.
I too have always had a deep love for animals ever since I was young. I always had a pet growing up, and though it was always a dog or two, I had imagined myself living with a house full of animals when I got older. Before the Gentle Barn, I had an understanding that animals were not just things you kept around for your own enjoyment. They were there to live with you. Alongside you. Be your companion. Growing up, although I had friends, I could always count on my dog to be there for me at the end of the day. When I started coming to the Gentle Barn though, I didn’t just have my dog anymore. I had a whole brigade of animals that I could keep in my heart and they would keep me in theirs.
Before I started volunteering at the Barn, I was rather shy. I was still trying to make friends after having moved from Michigan to California. As I learned about the animals at the barn and worked with them, I realized that many of them had gone through big changes as well. As I worked alongside them and helped tell their stories to visitors, I became more open when I spoke and found myself intentionally trying to grab people’s attention to hear me speak. I found that even some of the animals were a bit nervous around people, but together we were both able to build up our confidence so that we could willingly approach strangers and let them know just what we do at the Gentle Barn.
Another thing I struggled with, and still do at times, is trust. I have a hard time being able to feel as though I can fully trust someone. Some of the animals I work with know exactly how I feel on this matter. Trust is hard to earn and easily broken. The more your trust is broken, the harder it becomes to trust again the next time. For many of the animals who have either been abused or abandoned, they have to work with a volunteer(s) for weeks—if not months—to help build a trust between one another. Eventually though, they begin showing signs that they are willing to place their ever so fragile trust into another person. By watching them do this, I am slowly learning that even though it may take time, it is okay to give someone your trust because eventually you will find a person/people that will never let you down.
If working on trust wasn’t enough, the daily stressors of life can be hard to manage as well. It’s not much to say that I am a middle-class, college student who works part time at the local mall. But everyone has their own individual limits on how much they can handle from day-to-day life and sometimes, even the people who seem to have their whole lives together can get stressed out. Fortunately for me, I have a great outlet. Whenever I am having a stressful week, I know that as long as I can get out of bed Sunday morning, the animals will help bring my buzzing brain to a dull hum. As soon as I get around the animals, the stress seems to disappear—or at least melt into a manageable puddle that I can deal with later. The animals, especially the horses, help teach me that it doesn’t matter what you’re going through, there will always be someone around for you to lean on and lend you a hug.
The Gentle Barn is a great, family friendly, place to visit when you're feeling low, if you want to see some cool animals, or if you just need a hug. The animals have taught me so much: they taught me that there is always a silver lining, that everyone deserves a second chance, and that there is always someone out there who loves you and believes in you. Thanks to the environment, the people, and especially the animals, Sunday's have truly become my favorite day of the week.